Stress management for women in agriculture

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by Troy Bishopp

NYFarmNet Personal Consultant Brenda O’Brien cited a common occurrence among women involved in agriculture today: “Sometimes you don’t realize you’re actually drowning when you’re trying to be everyone else’s anchor.” The recognition and managing of myriad daily stressors was the focus of a virtual collaborative effort by Annie’s Project, Cornell Cooperative Extension and NYFarmNet to help women through the health, emotional and financial challenges on the farm.

“This is a topic that’s very personal to me,” said O’Brien. “We as the nurturers want everyone to be okay, but we don’t exactly take care of ourselves.” O’Brien visited with 27 women about stressors categorized as “external” that are major life changes and “internal,” such as fears, lack of control and overall worry. The stress, positive and negative, releases stress hormones – cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine – which elevate blood pressure, increase heart rate, alter immune system responses and suppress the digestive system.

“Stress is individualistic and each person handles it differently,” said O’Brien. “It can be described as ‘acute,’ with the most common form adding excitement in small doses. It’s short term and prepares you for ‘flight or fight.’ Most people recognize this stress. It’s life – the fender bender, a deadline needing to be met, the start of a new job, etc. It’s highly treatable and manageable.

“Chronic stress is the daily grind that wears people out day after day. I’m empathetic toward dairy farm families that have endured this chronic stress for five to six years now,” she continued. “It’s long term and not thrilling or exciting. It’s the stress of poverty, broken/stressed families, chronic illness, successive failures in life and many times, professional help is needed to facilitate a positive outcome.”

The health concerns of too much stress are real and diverse. They include persistent muscle tension, headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain and stomach issues. In a chronic state, heart attacks, stroke, suicide, adrenal exhaustion, decreased stress tolerance, progressive mental and physical exhaustion and collapse can be attributed to this daily pressure. “We’re proud farmers, so we persevere through the struggles, but you really need a network around you and someone to talk to for some relief,” said O’Brien.

According to a spontaneous polling of the farm women she spoke with, there’s plenty of stressful situations to go around, from financial instability, lack of time and feeling of out of control to medical issues, home schooling and balancing home and work life. To brighten the mood, O’Brien suggested a to-do list of stress management techniques:

  • Change the way you think about the stress in your life
  • Use problem-focused vs. emotion-focused coping
  • Relaxation and meditation
  • Talk to someone and share your feelings/struggles
  • Exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet
  • Adopt healthy sleep patterns
  • Set boundaries and learn to say “no”
  • Get organized
  • Pursue activities and hobbies you enjoy
  • Keep humor in your life, as it is the body’s natural painkiller

The audience chimed in with their personal stress relievers: Gardening, walking, reading, biking, writing in a journal and talking on the phone with friends were among some valuable relievers. O’Brien added commentary on knowing when to get professional vs. nonprofessional help – “Sometimes an outside perspective is needed in trying times.”

“One thing’s for sure: other farmers are really, really huge in helping because they can relate to the many stresses of farming life,” she added.

The final perspectives were overcoming financial and emotional stresses. “Assess, accept and make a plan,” said O’Brien. “Accept your financial situation for what it is, identify what needs the most attention (list the three biggest money challenges), stay positive, be realistic, have a budget and live within your means, make the most of your income – small steps are big. Sometimes the little things make a big difference.”

Make a plan to head off emotional stressors. Accept things for what they are, identify root causes (list the three biggest triggers to your emotional stress), adopt distraction therapy/healthy coping strategies, practice meditation/yoga, look for positivity, have a good diet and exercise regime and when needed, seek professional help. “Many women have commented that taking a break from all the toxicity of social media has helped,” said O’Brien.

For resources to help deal with life’s stresses, check out anniesproject.org.

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